Farscape

There are people who love this show. I’m gonna say right up front, I had trouble getting through the pilot — I thought it was awful. It premiered in 1999. I had to look that up to be sure because, watching it with no prior knowledge, I was estimating something closer to 1989. I’m going to plead, “You can’t judge a show by it’s pilot,” on this one because apparently it improves.

According to TV Tropes, “While its premise began as a fairly standard science fiction show, Farscape quickly distinguished itself with a focus on complex, evolving characterizations, jaw-dropping plot twists and movie-quality special effects and cinematography.” Continue reading

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Falling Skies


Falling Skies returns for its second season in a couple of weeks so it’s a good time to revisit how the TNT series began. When it debuted in the summer of 2011, carrying an Executive Producer credit from Steven Spielberg, I — and probably many others — had high hopes. (Remember, this was before the harsh lesson that was Terra Nova.) I couldn’t help but compare it to The Walking Dead, which had left us hungry for more six months earlier. Each centers on a band of survivors toughing it out after an apocalyptic event, and each story centers on a family man assuming a role of responsibility within the group. That’s where the similarities end. If you’re going to compare the two, Falling Skies will inevitably lose. So, yeah. Don’t do that. Continue reading

The Incredible Hulk

Although the character The Incredible Hulk was born in 1962 and took animated form in 1966, the television series that ran from 1977-82 is probably responsible for introducing the masses, including us Gen-X kids, to the gamma radiation-fueled green guy. More recent live action portrayals have been underwhelming at best, until The Avengers. I don’t know if everyone was as pleasantly surprised with Mark Ruffalo‘s Hulk as I was, but I think it was partially because he reminds me of the actor imprinted on my memory as THE David Bruce Banner, Bill Bixby. (His name on his tombstone is David Bruce, though he goes by David on the show and Bruce in The Avengers. If anyone can explain this, please do.) Continue reading

Dr. Who: The Eleventh Hour

Dr. Who Eleventh HourI have a confession.

I’ve never watched Dr. Who. I have a passing familiarity with who The Doctor is and what a TARDIS is, mainly via geek osmosis (geekmosis?), having a lot of friends and Tweeps who are fans. I’ve caught bits and pieces of a few episodes since it began airing on BBC America, but the whole thing seemed too overwhelming to try and jump in mid-stream. I mean, the show is in the Guiness Book of World Records as the longest running science fiction show and its lead has been played by eleven different actors. Where do you start?

You start, I’ve discovered, with The Eleventh Hour.

This is the first episode of season 5 (of the show’s modern incarnation) and the introduction to Matt Smith as The Doctor. It functions very much as a pilot, and I highly recommend it to any Doctor Who virgin. It is a continuation from the end of season 4 and includes many significant updates and references for loyal viewers, but you don’t have to know that to enjoy it.

It’s action-packed from the first moment. The Doctor–in this case a gangly 20-something in a shirt and necktie–clings precariously to his police call box, hurtling across the London night sky, narrowly missing Big Ben. He crash lands in the backyard (the garden, as they say in the U.K.) of a young red-headed Scottish girl, just as she is praying to Santa Claus for someone to fix the crack in her bedroom wall. He climbs from the box, soaking wet and demanding an apple. Though these two characters have never met, neither is the slightest bit shy about speaking his or her mind.

“I’m the Doctor,” he announces. “Do everything I tell you, don’t ask stupid questions, and don’t wander off.” Though the girl, Amelia Pond, (Caitlin Blackwood) isn’t a particularly docile kid, she’s game to go along with whatever he says. They banter like a brother and sister as they bounce around the kitchen trying to find something he likes to eat. From this we learn that the Doctor is not himself. He has just acquired a new body, which he is still getting used to, and he’s not even sure of his own tastes. This is part is not explained but, according to Wikipedia, The Doctor regenerates a new body when mortally wounded; a convention that protects the show against jumping the shark even after 5 decades.

The Doctor and Amelia inspect the crack with the help of a gadget that’s something like a Swiss Army laser pointer (an iconic Doctor prop known as the Sonic Screwdriver). The crack is a crack in the fabric of the world and, though it, an alien being is searching for an escapee called Prisoner Zero. Before The Doctor can catch Prisoner Zero, though, he has to secure a glitch with his police box, explaining to Amelia as he climbs aboard that it’s a time machine. He makes a heartfelt promise that he will return in five minutes. She packs a suitcase and plops down on top of it to await his return.

These first 15 minutes is an absolute delight. It has fun, fairy tale-like air with a hint of foreboding; that crack is scary, especially when considered through the eyes of a child. And her complete acceptance of The Doctor as her friend and protector is completely endearing.

The Doctor returns in daylight and runs to the house. We’re led to believe a few hours have passed. Then, wait, it’s six months. There are clues that it’s longer–the house looks a bit worse for wear and the foliage has grown up in the yard. But he said five minutes. Inside the house, a police woman whacks The Doctor with a cricket bat and handcuffs him to a radiator. Her outfit is a little to sexy to be believable as a standard issue police uniform, and she eventually admits that it’s a “kiss-o-gram” costume.

Here we find the twist that–if you somehow have not seen the show since Matt Smith took on the role of The Doctor–just might take you by surprise. Ready?

This cheeky young woman (Karen Gillan) is Amelia, and twelve years have passed.

“I grew up.”

“You never want to do that.”

Caitlin Blackwood and Karen Gillan are real-life cousins, which brings a true family resemblance, and both girls just light up the screen with their charisma. The monster-of-the-week arc provides a wealth of background about the characters and the world of the show. The escaped alien is still living in her house. Its jailer has resumed an active and aggressive search for it, spurred by The Doctor’s return.

It is revealed that Amelia, now going by Amy, held out hope for the return of the man she called “The Raggedy Doctor” for years. She told friends and neighbors about him, drew pictures of their adventures, and even role played their relationship. It’s enough to break your heart, but the action doesn’t stop long enough.

The aliens are about to incinerate the Earth if Prisoner Zero is not handed over, so The Doctor and Amy, with help from her boyfriend and a couple of neighbors, must scramble to save it.

The Eleventh Hour has everything a pilot needs: a great episode arc, along with a hook into a season arc; characters we want to get to know better; enough back story to pique curiosity without slowing the pace; and endless possibilities for where the story can go–quite literally in this case.

Did I mention I recommend it? It’s available on Amazon if you need to catch up.

Eureka

When a character in TV or film stumbles into a Town with a Dark Secret… or Cleveland… they do so one of two ways: by relocating to make a fresh start, usually following a tragedy, (Secret Circle, Manhattan, AZ, Locke and Key) or by getting stranded there (Lost, Hot in Cleveland). Eureka‘s Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) falls into the latter category.

The show opens, however, with a wife calling her husband to bed. We pan down to the basement to find the husband tinkering with a large mechanical device reminiscent of the launchpad from the movie Contact. As its concentric circles spin the nerdy-looking man exclaims, “Susan, it works!” The sinister score lets us know that, whatever the gadget is doing isn’t good.

We meet Jack, a U.S. Marshall, as he is driving along an otherwise deserted road in his police car, with a mouthy young girl riding in back. Zoe (Jordan Hinson) and Jack are presented as prisoner and arresting officer, but bicker more like smartass teenager and protective but frustrated father. So it’s not really a big reveal when we later learn that he is, in fact her father.

They run off the road trying to avoid a dog, But not before Zoe witnesses a supernatural sight: She sees a duplicate of Jack’s car, with duplicate passengers inside, passing them on the road. Jack doesn’t believe her.

While he sets off to get the car repaired, Jack hands Zoe over to the local police station for incarceration. There, we meet Sheriff Bill Cobb and Deputy Jo Lupo (Erica Cerra), a bitter overgrown tomboy. Up to this point the characters seem relatively normal if slightly standoffish. The only major hint that something is unusual in this picturesque Oregon town is a boy of no more than nine, carrying a book on theoretical physics, gives oddly articulate directions.

As tends to happen in these situations, the car cannot be repaired right away. Local mechanic Henry Deacon (Joe Morton) informs an exasperated Jack that the job will take a few days. So, in the meantime, Jack winds up helping solve a local mystery of national interest. A big hole has been blown in the back of an RV belonging to Walter, the nerdy man from the opening scene. While he is clearly hiding something, he seems well liked by the townspeople.

Next Jack meets Allison Blake (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) who trumps his U.S. Marshall status by announcing she represents the Department of Defense.  The RV isn’t the only thing blown apart–there has been mysterious damage to other locales and some cows. We find that whatever can of worms Walter has opened is causing a lot of trouble, and that representatives from a local research agency are trying to cover it up.

Each scene takes us a little deeper into WTF territory. This town is definitely hiding something. As Jack and Allison enter a secured area he askis, “Where are you taking me, Area 51?” She replies, “Please, they wish they had our security.” At the midpoint, we finally get some explanation: Eureka was founded by President Truman, at the request of Albert Einstein, to house the greatest scientific minds in the country. We’re still not sure just what they’re up to at the moment or why explosions from Henry’s garage are treated as commonplace. The town has an isolationist nature that begins to get creepy; it reminds me of the corporate-run communities in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

As Jack delves deeper into the mystery–he has nothing else to do–we get to know him a little better. He is recently separated from his wife. From Zoe’s snarky remarks we glean that he is a workaholic who hasn’t made time for his wife and child.

…And some other stuff happens. This pilot is little rambly and long (2 hours) as the writers attempt to introduce–it seems–the whole freaking town. And on top of setting up characters and conventions, the episode still basically follows a mystery-of-the-week formula. The problem is solved, the world is saved, and Jack and Zoe seem to be on their way out. But just as we reach end, we witness a murder. And it turns out Jack has been appointed Sheriff of Eureka and will be hanging around for a while.

Manhattan, AZ

I decided to look at Manhattan, AZ and Eureka* back-to-back since they both center around police officers finding themselves in strange, new towns. Both fit squarely into the Town with a Dark Secret trope. (See also Haven.) The similarities go even further; both Daniel of Manhattan, AZ and Jack of Eureka have teenage children with bad attitudes and are recently separated from their wives (one by death, the other by choice). Each meets a series of oddball people including a hard ass female law enforcement official. And yet, these shows could not be more different.

The first word that comes to mind in describing Manhattan, AZ is “wacky.” It’s wacky in the way that Pushing Daisies was wacky, but with an irreverence reminiscent of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with a dash of My Name is Earl. Unfortunately, Manhattan, AZ predated all of these, so I can’t image how it would have been described in the fall of 2000.

The clash of serious subjects and ridiculousness is almost confusing for the first 2-3 minutes of the pilot. The protagonist, Daniel Henderson (Brian McNamara), narrates certain events but what is seen on screen doesn’t quite match up. Once you get the hang of this, you can’t help but wonder where it’s going to go next.

Daniel describes his perfect life in the perfect house with his perfect wife, perfect son and perfect job. The job is as an under cover officer for the LAPD, where we see Daniel and other officers prepping for “Operation Thong Sausage,” a prostitution sting. The seriousness with which Daniel treats this assignment juxtaposed with his ridiculous appearance in an evening gown and wig is one example of the show’s exercise in contrasts. His wife, Charlie pursues the “insignificant little hobby” of chasing down Dolphin poachers. When she dies in a diving accident and is canned as tuna (her name is Charlie, get it?), an event to which he reacts by watching “anything with Alec Baldwin in it” while his son stuffs his face and plays video games.

As Daniel continues his narration, describing his decision to move to Arizona and take a new job he tells us, “everything looked different,” and suddenly a different actor (Vincent Berry) is playing the kid. This is the kind of apropos-of-nothing joke that litters the script. As father and son land in Manhattan, Arizona about six minutes in, the show shifts from voice-over to ordinary dialogue. They meet the mayor, Jake Manhattan, played by Chad Everett (for whom the town is named… I guess?) and learn about Area 61, essentially just Area 51. (The name is trademarked… I guess?)

Daniel soon learns that a lot of the neighborhood pets are turning up with missing right hind legs, a scandal the townspeople blame on the “government guys over at Area 61.” In an absurd town hall meeting scene, Atticus returns the missing animal limbs and takes responsibility for the crimes. The town of Manhattan has the same small town feel of Eureka, but the people are strange, not in a like-able way but just plain strange. It is hard to sympathize with these characters–even the son, who we know is struggling with major change.

Daniel soon figures out that Atticus is just creating drama to convince his dad to move them back to L.A. and hasn’t actually harmed any animals. The mystery of the week is wrapped up pretty quickly and easily. Being a comedy and only half an hour long, this pilot focuses more on introducing a tone and style, with a few laughs–if you’re into it’s particular brand of humor. The single-camera style and absence of a laugh track differentiate it from the typical sit-com, so it takes a little adjustment. It doesn’t have the benefit of Eureka’s two hours to subtly build character and setting. Based on the presence of Area 61 we’re expecting some type of alien plot, yet aliens don’t figure into the pilot at all. It’s a little hard to see where this is all going. It didn’t go far, in fact–the show only lasted for eight episodes. From this, it doesn’t appear to have been any great loss.

*I’ll be posting about Eureka within the next few days!

The X-Files

XFilesPilotLooking back at The X-Files, which premiered in 1993, it’s almost impossible not to compare it to a hundred other shows to air since. As a huge Bones fan, I’m most inclined to look for parallels to that show, and many have been drawn. Yes there’s the female-skeptic/male-believer duo, which apparently, was unusual in 1993. But upon re-watching, the X-Files pilot strikes a tone that is all its own.

The pilot opens, as many crime shows do, with a murder. But this is not two drunk kids having a frolic in the woods when they stumble onto a body. Instead, we witness a scene that, if you happened to just turn it on at that point, you might mistake for the climax of the episode. The victim displays absolute terror as a bright light appears over a ridge and a figure emerges from it. Cut to the police investigating the scene. We are briefly introduced to a detective who recognizes the victim as a classmate of his son, class of ‘89. Only after the crime of the week is established do we meet our protagonists.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is an FBI agent who is brought into the office of one of her superiors, where she is properly introduced to the viewer. She was recruited out of medical school to the FBI, where she has worked for two years. She is clearly a trusted member of the team, as they are asking her to check up on another agent with an established high-profile career who takes an interest in classified files. As she is briefed on her new assignment, a tall, silent man–who will later be known in X-Files lore as Cigarette Smoking Man–stands by…smoking a cigarette.

Scully heads to a cramped basement office to meet this volatile agent, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). Mulder is painted as eccentric, but he’s not Walter Bishop eccentric. In fact, with his boyish charm he could be described as a cross between Walter and Peter Bishop. Later, his celebratory reaction at realizing that he and Scully just jumped through nine minutes is reminiscent of Dr. Emmet Brown. He’s a likeable character, as is Scully, but the immediate tension between them feels forced. It’s understandable that he is defensive toward her; he believes she is there to spy on him. Her defensiveness isn’t so easy to understand. We can assume the writers are going to work up some sexual tension between the two.

Legend has it that Scully had a boyfriend in the original script, possibly increasing the stakes. here is a hint of sexual tension when Dana strips down to her underwear to show Mulder some bumps on her back, after which they sit around and talk by candlelight. The scene reveals some of each character’s vulnerabilities. But there is no witty, flirtatious back-and-forth; just two people getting to know each other.

As one might expect, this work has personal meaning for Mulder. His sister was abducted, he believes by aliens, as a child, and the record of the case was covered up. It’s predictable, but you have to have your personal connection. (Bones’ mom was murdered, Olivia Benson was raped, Kate Beckett’s mom was murdered, Veronica Mars was raped… I could go on.)

There is something unique about this pilot, however. The episode overall has the feel of a true crime television special, putting into a realm of freakiness above normal network drama. Opening with the subtitle, “The following story is inspired by actual documented events,” and then using typewriter text to denote times and places add to this effect.

The plot, which involves mysterious deaths of several former Oregoneon high school classmates, gets relatively complex. Personally, I find the casting of all these middle aged white guys with receding hairlines confusing; I couldn’t keep straight the detective, the medical examiner, and the coroner. That being said, the show really is story-driven. There are no shots of gorgeous bodies and scenery like in the CSIs or any slapstick, such as sometimes works into Bones or Castle.

The detectives more or less solve the case, only to learn that all the paperwork they file on it immediately disappears. The show ends with the Cigarette Smoking Man taking the one piece of surviving evidence and filing it away deep in the Pentagon archives. This scene sets up the show for a long time to come.

Perhaps the lines that best encapsulate where we’re headed are when Scully asks, “Do you have a theory?” to which Mulder answers, “I have plenty of theories.”

Fringe

Fringe, from its beginning, is a character driven show. It’s a procedural, to be sure, but the pilot lets us know that three strong personalities are going to drive the action: FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), and Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble).

We don’t meet Olivia as badass cop woman. We meet her as she is falling in love, in bed with the object of her affection, sweet and almost demure. This is a reversal of the typical female action hero who is usually tough first, vulnerable later. It’s not as if Olivia’s a wimp; we see her in action soon enough. She’s part of a joint task force reporting to Homeland Security, which is called upon when a planeload of civilians die inexplicably mid-flight. Within in minutes we find Olivia chasing down a suspect and, after that, putting her brains to work to solve a mystery. During the chase her romantic and professional partner, John, is hit by an explosion. He winds up comatose, poisoned and dying from an unidentified contaminant.

John is introduced too early to survive. People who are happily together at the start of a drama pilot are destined to be torn apart. But that won’t stop our heroine from trying to save him.

Trying to discover the nature of the poison, Olivia is soon on the trail of a mysterious and insane researcher, Dr. Bishop, living in an institution. She demonstrates her powers of persuasion by travelling to Iraq to coerce the researcher’s genius son, Peter, into coming with her to bust him out. Dr. Bishop worked studied “fringe” science 17 years ago before being locked away in a stony vault.

When the bearded Dr. Bishop turns, ever so slowly and looks up at Olivia, we know we are meeting a powerful character. “I knew someone would come,” he intones. A bit like Temperence “Bones” Brennan, Walter thinks in pure facts. He may be a genius but his social interactions are painful to witness.

The episode is filled with quiet moments; long, awkward pauses at once suspenseful and humorous. Everyone has moments when a parent embarrasses them. It’s just more intense when said parent is a mental patient. Peter sure hates Walter, but as the viewer, we’re not sure whether either one has good intentions or bad.

Peter is a total ass to Olivia, but she doesn’t stand for it. You feel her frustration when she says, “You call me sweetheart one more time? I’d really like that.” It’s not an obvious sexual tension between them, as might be expected. Simply, they’re both strong people who know what they want.

As we delve further into the mystery of the poison, we’re introduced to Massive Dynamic, your basic giant, evil corporation. Its founder, a Dr. Bell, is Walter’s former partner. We don’t meet Dr. Bell, but only his Executive Director, a snippy woman with a super cool bionic arm. The pilot is double-length, basically a movie, so suffice it to say, this is only the beginning. We’re promised a future filled with teleportation, astral projection, reanimation and the like. More importantly, Olivia is at a critical juncture in her life and career.

The snowy cold landscape of Boston provides a distinctive atmosphere. The show is filled with interesting visuals: a cow walking down a crowded university hallway, a man with transparent skin, a woman in a tank hooked up to electrodes. Though it gets compared to The X-Files, and it’s even been suggested the two shows take place in the same universe, Fringe is unique in many ways. We know from the pilot that we’re headed down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole, which could easily get cheeseball, but there is promise that these characters will keep us coming back.

Ark

The pilot of this web series functions like a cold open would in a television series. You can barely call it a set-up. We see a character in a situation, and just as we get a wider angle—literally and figuratively—it’s over. The protagonist, whose name as far as we know, is “Mom,” is dozing on a couch in a messy living room. Her child is operating a handheld video camera while trying to wake her up, but she shoos him away. Then, somehow, she is inside a container not much bigger than a coffin. Saying any more would be a spoiler. As a pilot, this is light on exposition, big on suspense; great combo.

Cleopatra 2525

This show, which could have been called “Boobs in Space,” was brought to my attention by a former roommate who watched it to fill up the space between Baywatch episodes. It is so campy and awful, I was delighted to find it on Hulu. What I didn’t remember was that one of the main three actresses is Gina Torres, Zoe from Firefly!

You have to hand it to these writers—they need all of a minute and a half to show us just what a  joyride in the cheesmobile we’re in for. We open on an interior shot of the now-dilapidated Sistine Chapel. Shot of a bunch of hot people in really skimpy, “futuristic” looking out fits. Some talk about going to “the surface.” A disembodied voice prodding them to go up there. The main character snapping her buggy-looking goggles into place, saying defiantly, “Let’s do it.”

Here’s the premise: a woman in 2001 went in for a boob job. Something went wrong with the anesthesia, and she was cryogenically frozen until they could find a cure (for anesthesia?) She is now waking up—spontaneously—in the year 2525. She’s been brought to a medical lab that looks like something out of Barbarella to be harvested for spare organs, wearing a costume reminiscent of the chick in The Fifth Element. Oh, and spoiler alert, she’s a stripper.

Before we meet our heroine, Cleopatra (Jennifer Sky – who?), we follow her soon-to-be new BFFs, Helen and Sarge (Victoria Pratt), in battle. They tromp around underground in the most uncomfortable looking space armor I’ve ever seen. Their cleavage, midriffs and legs are in some serious danger should a laser battle take place. By the end of the first scene the man has turned on the women. They discover him to be a cleverly-named “betrayer robot.” Clearly the women are the only heroes here, nothing unexpected in the era of Xena Warrior Princess.

The enemies in this underground future are robotic creatures called bailies. Before they get to the level boss, though the women still have to fight off the betrayer bot. He’s got laser vision that makes Superman look like a punkass. Defeating him involves some snazzy moves designed to show off the women’s hot bods. After that, Cleo attacks Sarge for no discernable reason other than that chick fights are hot.

When Sarge asks Cleopatra, “You’re very concerned about the way you look, aren’t you?” you have to laugh. And hope that the show’s creators are not actually taking this stuff seriously. The plot of this particularly story is resolved pretty easily, thanks to a handy talent of Cleo’s that has nothing to do with her cleavage. Aaaand, by the end of 22 minutes everyone is happy and ready to fight evil together. Cleo is surprisingly accepting of her circumstances. So if she’s not going to take this seriously, why should we? Answer: we shouldn’t. If you abandon all sense of reality and logic, you might have fun with this show.